6N: France desperate to find consistency
PARIS (AP) — For years, France always looked capable of winning the Six Nations. Those years are slipping further and further away.
Since taking over as manager from Marc Lievremont, who led France to the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, Philippe Saint-Andre has overseen poor results in the Six Nations; finishing third, fourth, and even last two years ago, which hadn’t been seen since it was the Five Nations.
Which is why the focus is on winning, in whatever fashion. Forget style points, France just wants points, and more than the opponent at fulltime, starting with the visit of a reinvigorated Scotland to Stade de France on Saturday.
Despite the French clubs’ strength in European competitions, Saint-Andre’s teams have lacked spirit, confidence, and struggled to find their own identity. There was a bright spell last autumn with convincing wins over Fiji and Australia, but a shock loss to Argentina ruined the positive vibe the victory over the Wallabies created.
France has played its best when its back has been against the wall, but that’s not the consistency it’s after.
“In emergency situations, when it was fighting for survival, the French team achieved great results,” former coach Jean Trillo said. “But are they capable of such a determined effort?”
Seemingly unable to win more than two matches in succession, France’s hopes of rebuilding confidence have been complicated by a tough schedule, with two home matches and difficult trips to Ireland and England.
Saint-Andre has warned his players that they are also playing for a shot at the World Cup in seven months.
“They’ve got a beef steak in front of them. If they eat it, if the Six Nations is a success, it will be hard for the others to come back. That’s one of the meanings of this championship,” he said.
“We have to be focused for the first game against Scotland. The first game sets the tempo for the competition.”
Saint-Andre has kept faith in the players who beat Australia, though he’s had to name his 14th halfback pairing, giving South African-born Rory Kockott a first start ahead of Morgan Parra after Sebastien Tillous-Borde hurt his knee. Kockott will partner flyhalf Camille Lopez.
France has ditched its blue jerseys and alternative whites in a commercial decision to wear red jerseys on Saturday for the first time since 1959 in, by coincidence, a win over Scotland.
The Scots are used to losing in France, where they haven’t beaten the home side since 1999 to win the last Five Nations.
“I remember watching it on television,” Scotland scrumhalf and captain Greig Laidlaw said. “It was a great day for Scotland. It was a very Scottish performance that day, with pace and good rucking, and they moved the ball quickly. If we are to win, we will have to emulate that.”
Scotland is in a boisterous mood under New Zealander Vern Cotter, who rebuilt French club Clermont during an eight-year spell from 2006-14.
He has similarly transformed Scotland, which has been reacquainted with the tryline, and won five of its last seven tests, losing only to New Zealand and South Africa.
Cotter has made only two changes from the 37-12 win over Tonga in November, recalling fit-again center Mark Bennett, who made his debut in the autumn, for his Six Nations debut, and tighthead prop Euan Murray, a 2009 British Lion.
France: Scott Spedding, Yoann Huget, Mathieu Bastareaud, Wesley Fofana, Teddy Thomas, Camille Lopez, Rory Kockott; Damien Chouly, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Bernard Le Roux, Yoann Maestri, Pascal Pape, Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado, Alexandre Menini. Reserves: Benjamin Kayser, Uini Atonio, Eddy Ben Arous, Romain Taofifenua, Loann Goujon, Morgan Parra, Remi Tales, Remi Lamerat.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar, Tim Visser, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw (captain); Johnnie Beattie, Blair Cowan, Rob Harley, Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Euan Murray, Ross Ford, Alasdair Dickinson. Reserves: Fraser Brown, Gordon Reid, Geoff Cross, Jim Hamilton, Alasdair Strokosch, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Peter Horne, Dougie Fife.